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Forest industry must change: Cansfield

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While the forestry industry has been experiencing thousands of job layoffs and a reduction in orders for some time, and companies such as AbitibiBowater facing a long, complex financial restructuring to reduce its debt of more than $6 billion (U.S.), Ontario Natural Resources minister Donna Cansfield said she’s hopeful there is a future for the sector—it just has to make it through the transition into the new “bioeconomy.”

“I don’t know if we’ve seen the end of [the bad news] or if there’s still more to come, to be honest with you, but the commitment you need to know is we are not walking away from this,” she told the annual Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association conference being held here on Friday.

“We recognize this as a challenge, and the most significant challenge is, yes, to the corporations, but really to the employees, to their families, to their future,” Cansfield remarked.

“We must have due diligence in ensuring, from my perspective, that we can weather these storms far better in the future than we have in the past.

“The forestry sector will survive, but it will not look the same. It will be quite different,” she warned. “But what we must do, what we are doing, is bringing in the value-added market.”

Cansfield said there have been charges the province hasn’t done enough to support the forestry industry, but that’s simply not true.

“Abitibi alone received $150 million from us, we supported that company,” she stressed. “The $20 million we put right here in Fort Frances toward the biomass, into the new boiler system.

“We have been with them as they started to make their transition.

“The challenge they’ve got in Abitibi’s case is their entire global market has collapsed and they owe $6 billion, and their creditors are calling it in and they haven’t got a product to sell around the world.

“They will emerge,” she predicted. “They will just be different, and they will be smaller. But it also may in fact open up other opportunities.”

Cansfield said the emerging bioeconomy, specifically biofibre, focuses on using technology to market the “unmarketable tree,” such as slash in the forest.

“When I talk about looking at this differently, obviously, there’s pelletization, and that’s in-sync with Ontario Power Generation switching over Atikokan to 25 percent pellets and hopefully others down the line,” she noted.

“But we’re also looking at the trees for essential oils, insecticides, pesticides, for heaven’s sake clothes, car doors.

“The tree is not the same as it was because technology has changed, research has changed, and it’s working,” she remarked.

New companies are starting up in the bioeconomy,” Cansfield said, “because we’re ‘greener’ than we used to be, we’re thinking differently, and we’re opening up the dollars to support it.”

She noted the province has put together a $350-million loan guarantee for companies pursuing these new types of projects, which already has generated $600 million in new business.

The province also has a “prosperity fund,” whereby a company presents a business plan and the province may provide it with a financial commitment up front, giving the company three years to get their backers, wood supply, and other details lined up knowing they have backing from the province.

“We’re moving forward. It’s a chance to do things differently, and if ever there was an opportunity, it’s now,” stressed Cansfield, adding the ministry will continue to work with municipalities on matters like land acquisition.

“The bottom line is the MNR is here to help you,” she vowed. “We haven’t abandoned you, never have.”

The three-day NOMA conference, which drew about 160 delegates from across the region to the Memorial Sports Centre, wrapped up Saturday at noon.

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